I recently found myself speaking with an elderly gentleman after a church service. He has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is beginning to prepare for such a time as he is unable to make decisions for or take care of himself. At one point in the conversation, he said ‘it seems strange talking about this with someone like you!’ Well it might: he is close to 50 years my senior. He was born as Europe still smouldered from the Second World War; I was born weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have rarely felt so young, safe, and carefree as I did during that conversation.
For all our obvious differences, though, I was actually struck that evening by how topsy-turvy our mindsets seemed to be. Here was a man of considerably more life experience than me describing his simple trust in the goodness of God. God has been so good to him, he explained, for so many years that he is confident of his faithfulness in the years to come, come what may. He put me to shame! Despite having few cares in the world, I have a small library of books and a fairly well developed theodicy to protect me (BA [hons], don’t you know). But he has the kind of ‘childlike’ faith, to put it like Mark does in today’s Lectionary reading, which Jesus welcomes with open arms.
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:14b-15)
The self-righteous Pharisees
I would be the last person to criticise theology or Bible study, but whatever we learn of God must be shaped by Jesus’appeal to childlike faith. If you are reading Tom Wright’s Lent for Everyone reflections as part of the Big Read, you will know that he dealt excellently with Jesus’ teaching on divorce in today’s passage. That teaching arose because the Pharisees sought to test Jesus and trip him up. They knew the law of Moses inside, but they used that knowledge to puff themselves up in order to bolster their own self-righteousness. They wanted to trick Jesus into impeaching himself, when they should have been humbly eager to hear his life-giving words of grace and truth.
The self-righteous disciples
It’s easy to pick on the Pharisees: they can sometimes seem a bit like 1st century Palestinian pantomime villains. But the disciples come across little better in today’s passage, literally preventing the children from reaching Jesus. They presumed that Jesus would have more important people to give his blessing to.
How often do we find ourselves assuming that God would have no interest in the people we meet? We, with our knowledge and our great standing before God, cannot imagine God’s grace reaching the socially undervalued or ostracised. I could list the ‘usual suspects’ of neglected demographics in our culture: the homeless; asylum seekers; the inner-city poor; prostitutes; violent criminals; those people who hang around the bookies like it’s a social club; etc. But what of the fashionable, popular guy who seems to have everything? What of the millionaire? The opinion-formers? The sportspeople and pundits? It is the sick who need a doctor, after all.
Ambassadors for Christ, not gatekeepers of the gospel
In this season of repentance and meditation on the work of Jesus on the Cross, let’s approach him with childlike humility and childlike enthusiasm in equal measure. Inasmuch as we are ambassadors for Christ, let’s not act as gatekeepers of the gospel to those around us like the disciples did to the children, but rather let’s consider how to share his blessings with all those we come into contact with. And let’s enjoy those blessings of love and grace and salvation on his merits, not ours, with the childlike faith of children of God.
This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project as a reflection on the Lectionary reading for Tuesday of Week 4 of Lent.